The announcement that Southampton University in England is to host a conference delegitimizing Israel's basic right to exist is just one more reminder of how warped the conversation about Israel has become in the academic world. The conference has drawn criticism from a handful of British politicians, but not nearly as many as would have spoken up if the fundamental rights of just about any other people were being called into question in this way. Naturally, the university has gone on the defensive and is invoking arguments about academic freedom. Of course, the university has every right to hold such a conference if it wishes, but that still doesn't make the decision to do so a decent one. And a glance over some of the names attending this conference reveals that this event has nothing to do with free or credible academic inquiry.
It should be said at the outset that even if the organizers could demonstrate that they are structuring the sessions and speakers for this conference in a balanced manner, to put Israel's right to exist up for question is itself far beyond the pale. It's not as if debating the existence of the world's other nation-states is a routine practice. Unless Southampton University can provide a serious list of other countries that have been subjected this kind of treatment—a three-day-long extravaganza of condemnation and delegitimization—then we are left with no choice but to conclude that this institution just doesn't mind playing host to bigotry.
Of course, the whole undertaking is not only profoundly offensive; it is also utterly absurd. The conference is being hosted by the college's law faculty, and claims that it will be exploring the question of Israel's right to exist with regard to international law. But as Israel is one of the few states in the world that was actually established by specific instructions by both the League of Nations and the United Nations, there are simply no plausible grounds for inquiry here.
Similarly, the university's website defends the conference as being part of the effort to establish an "enduring peace." But what kind of genuine peace process involves telling one side that it doesn't have any rights, not even to so much as exist?
It comes as no surprise then to discover that one of the key speakers billed to appear at this event is Richard Falk. This is a man who is a notorious 9/11 truther, who has likened the Jewish state to Nazi Germany, and who has used his personal blog to promote anti-Semitic cartoons and conspiracies. That Falk has issued a stream of anti-Semitic comments is not only the opinion of groups such as the ADL; even the British mission to the UN has explicitly called Falk out for his anti-Semitism.
The attendance of Richard Falk, astonishing as it is, becomes less surprising once one takes a look at who the conference's primary organizer is. Southampton's Professor Oren Ben-Dor—who is behind this conference—is not simply an ex-Israeli wildly hostile to his own country of origin; he is also a defender of Gilad Atzmon, a known anti-Semite. That fact alone ought to be enough to set the conference far beyond the realms of credibility.
As crazy as this whole affair is, it is important to stress that this does matter and should be taken very seriously. Not because Southampton University is regarded as particularly prestigious among British universities—indeed another institution might have sidestepped arguments about intellectual freedom and simply shut down this conference on the grounds that this undertaking lacks any serious academic rigor. But rather, it is important because events like this one must not be allowed to become accepted as a normal part of the academic scene.
The conference boasts of being the "first of its kind," "ground-breaking," and "historic." No doubt it is the first of its kind, but the activist academics behind it also hope that it will not be the last. We must disappoint them. As it is, one or two genuinely pro-Israel speakers do appear to have accepted the invitation to attend, no doubt with the best intentions of fighting the good fight. But there are occasions when it is better just to not give these things the veneer of acceptability.
Southampton's Vice Chancellor Don Nutbeam has defended the university's right to hold the conference. As mentioned, it is true that they do have every right. But Nutbeam and his institution should just know that if they go ahead with hosting such conferences, they will be directly complicit in furthering the rising and harrowing tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, a phenomenon that has already got a number of innocent people murdered.